"The stage is a great place to be... it's also a great place to hide..."
Bryan Duncan has been one of the defining voices of Contemporary Christian music for more than three decades. He began his trailblazing career as a member of the Sweet Comfort Band in the early 1970s before embarking on a successful solo career. Duncan has released an astounding 20 albums, including his latest endeavor, A NehoSoul Christmas. He has sold in excess of one million records and has produced more than a dozen #1 singles including: “Traces of Heaven,” “Things are Gonna Change,” “United We Stand, “Don’t Look Away,” “Love Takes Time,” and “You Don’t Leave Me Lonely.” He is a four-time Dove Award recipient and multiple nominee.
Yet even at the pinnacle of success, Duncan found himself battling addictions, depression and self-doubt. Now well on the road to redemption, he channels his energy into performing and producing for his new record label, Red Road Records, which is short for “Redefined” and “Redeemed.” He also hosts a weekly radio program aptly titled “Radio Rehab,” a mix of incredible music and personal insights (www.bryand.com).
The stage is a great place to be, and it’s also a great place to hide. I’m fine when I have everyone’s undivided attention; it gives me a way to feel loved, strong, in control and understood. Of course, the stage has stunted my growth from time to time too. Ultimately, it’s better to be effective than just popular, because “popular” is a people-pleasing place that quickly goes sour. God pleasing… now that’s the more effective way to live. Letting go of self-seeking has helped me find something I’ve needed all my life – true love and acceptance.
My dad was an evangelist when I was growing up. He was a preacher who also had his share of internal struggles. That meant we moved around; it was never the same town for long. As a matter of fact, I was in 14 different schools by the time I made it through high school.
As it turns out, I became the same kind of wanderer my dad was – just a little uneasy being in the same place for very long. If you are around the same people all the time, one day they are going to see your uglier side. Not only are they going to see the real you, but you’re going to see yourself in their eyes. Eventually, you can’t run from yourself.
I sang in church all the time. I often played for the offering and started writing songs because I couldn’t play anybody else’s. Basically, I found two or three chords and made up my own songs because then it sounded like I knew what I was doing. Eventually I started writing songs to stay in touch with my feelings. I had a counselor once tell me that I probably would have committed suicide if it hadn’t been for the therapy of working through my emotions by writing songs.
Even though I was raised in the church, I never truly understood God. Part of it was the emotional vacancy of my parents who worked for God. It was the combination of their actions with how God was defined for me. God was this distant person who said He loved me and was kind of there for me, but He was at least 100 feet away at all times. Even my manager used to say my songs were more about the distance between me and God than they were about knowing Him. That’s a pretty powerful statement.
I think my initial decision to follow Christ as a boy was a direct result of wanting to please my parents and the others in the church. My entire society was built on Christ, so if you weren’t “saved” you were something of an outsider. We accept Christ for a lot of reasons – most of which are selfish. It’s like signing a contract; you have no idea what’s coming up.
When I first accepted the gift of salvation, Christ came into my life and started destroying my attachments. It’s kind of like this: when you buy a vacuum cleaner, you usually choose the one with all of the attachments. When you buy into Christ, he takes away all of your attachments. Frankly, I haven’t liked that part of the deal very much and He’s made me angrier than any person I’ve ever met.
One of the reasons I know He’s real is because there is a conflict between my desires and His, and the guilt and shame that come with following my own way tends to suggest there’s a power greater than myself. I’m defiant to the max … just tell me I can’t do something and I’ll show you!
I cut and paste my religion my whole life because it worked. There are certain buttons you can push in religious circles that cause people to respond. After pushing ministry for more than 25 years I wound up in a 12 Step program. I was depressed and suicidal and when I got to the top of the ladder of success, I realized it was leaning against the wrong building. You see, there’s some serious emptiness up there and nobody knows it. I got all the way up to the top of the hill but still didn’t feel any better about myself.
If people ask me what I’m recovering from, I can list the addictions. But the reality is that I’m recovering from other people and the hurts they caused. God would have to be in that group because I was disappointed in Him as well. I had an expectation that He was going to fix everything for me and was going to use my talent to do it. I got pretty angry because I felt like I was supposed to be God’s marketing director. But I found out he doesn’t want one!
My addiction is the way of escaping those hurts. I spent so much time trying to be what everybody else needed and expected me to be that I lost myself in the process. It’s what the experts call codependence. Every day is a winding road and I haven’t completely overcome my addictions, but I’m taking it one day at a time.
Organized religion was one of the primary reasons I found addictions after I found Christ. I just didn’t want any more of God’s friends. I never felt like I could be myself; I had to appear to be closer to God than I actually was. People in those circles used Scripture to belittle, disqualify and discount me. I’ve been accused of being possessed and “of the devil” even when I was in full-time ministry. I was misunderstood by Christians more often than not and they found me suspect if I didn’t always have the right answer. And I often didn’t – like many people, I’m still searching.
Several years ago I was asked to sing at a Pentecostal church. Before making the commitment, however, the preacher wanted to get to know me a little bit. I was anxious about the meeting because oftentimes when you walk into a place like that where everybody’s “fixed” and have all the answers, it can be pretty uncomfortable. I waited for this preacher to sit back in his office chair, fold his arms and start scrutinizing my spiritual qualities to see if I really deserved to be in his church.
It’s been my experience that a lot of pious people tend to look down at you like they’re looking for flaws. A lot of times preachers instantly launch into telling you about how their efforts on behalf of God are impacting communities etc. But I could tell by the questions this man was asking that he wasn’t just working for God, he really wanted to know Him personally. Instead of talking about himself, he was completely absorbed in my music, and asked me how I came to write one song in particular, “Dying to Meet You.” He told me he had the terminal disease, ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease. This guy was the most broken, humble man I have ever seen in ministry; pain and suffering removes a great deal of shallowness. He told me that his church was big on healing, instantaneous transformations and miracles, and that when he wasn’t healed he lost about half his congregation. It was like they believed he was outside of God’s will and it was his fault he was dying.
A year and a half later that preacher died and I sung at his funeral. I’d only met him once, but he made an incredible impact on me because I could sense how he was reaching out to God amidst his suffering.
I’ve come to learn that guilt, shame and suffering are as big a part of our lives as joy, happiness, miracles and transformations. Transformations don’t happen unless there’s another side to it. The Serenity Prayer, a mantra of 12 step programs, says that a higher power will make all things right if we surrender to His will. That’s a hard thing to do, but when you realize your life is not manageable on your own strength, it opens the door to a whole new perspective. Somebody has to be outside this pit to get us out. We can commiserate all day long with other people in the same hole, but in the end, they won’t get us out of it. Only Jesus Christ, THE higher power, can lift us out. Failure is not final.
You know the saying, “three strikes and you’re out?” Well, I’ve got about 15 strikes against me. No matter what you believe, mistakes happen. Wrong choices are commonplace and God is not surprised at the things you do or say. He still loves you and you can be restored. The road to redemption is not paved over pain; pain is what propels you forward. You can’t heal what you can’t feel.
Accepting hardship as a pathway to peace seems like the only way to find sanity to me. It says in the book of James that we will have trouble. That’s a promise in the Bible that you don’t hear quoted very often. I have raged at my own powerlessness and at the unfair circumstances of my life for most of my life. It led to anger and bitterness and eventually to addiction as a way of avoiding the pain I could not escape. So where’s the peace? Mine comes from believing in a Savior, Jesus Christ, and knowing that He has a plan for my life and a purpose for my circumstances. He will never abandon me even in the times when I choose my will over His.
The valley of the shadow of death will always be just that. There’s nothing to do but fix your eyes on Christ and walk through it. It’s painful. But it doesn’t mean that you give up and become apathetic. Instead, you learn to understand that there’s no way to eliminate all the pain in your life. It’s the pursuit of pain relief that usually destroys us.
I’m grateful for the pain in my life because it’s the very thing that has led me to ask God for answers. Most of us turn to God because we’re in trouble; we’ve messed up and things aren’t going our way. There’s no shame in turning to God for that reason. God is, after all, a Savior and He is our rescuer. But we may be surprised to find that as time passes, we discover how wonderful He is and we turn to God out of a desire just to be near Him.
The best changes I’ve ever made in my life were a direct result of the pain I was in. All of the biggest songs I’ve written were a reaction to pain. My closest relationships have been born through mutual suffering. Pain is my warning system that something needs to be taken care of. Pain forces growth. It moves me from the mountain of discontent to the valley of serenity. The good things I’m experiencing now are because pain forced me to move on. So in that way, pain is a gift. I don’t like it, but it is because of pain that I learn.
Let’s just say that right now I’m approaching the pinnacle of my decline. But having said that, I think it’s been a God-send that He saved me from success. Because in the long run, success makes you feel too self-sufficient and that you can accomplish things on your own. That removes our dependence on God.
I’ve done a moral inventory of myself and have offered forgiveness to the church and to the people who’ve hurt me. I’ve also made amends to those I’ve hurt. That’s another one of the reasons I know God is real, because forgiveness works.
I’m a believer in recovery and reconciliation and restoration. The Bible says you matter to God. Now, it’s one thing to develop the faith to believe that God exists, but to believe that He’s personally interested in you and has a plan for your life is another story. For many of us, that’s the toughest part of the good news to believe; especially if you have a hard time loving yourself.
I didn’t get what I deserved from God. What I got was forgiveness, another chance, and a life of mercy and grace. That’s my story of redemption and it’s a story available to anyone who would seek it.
Jesus Christ is the supreme redeemer. He can lift you out of the quagmire you’ve gotten yourself into. He’ll always take you back and His love is perfect. And His forgiveness is forever. There is a God, and He loves you very much. Believe it.